Sunday, January 03, 2010

Down in the clouds

Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

When driving cross-country during the winter, one should be sure to have a CB radio in the car. I never travel without one. Not only do you get up-to-the-minute road conditions from truckers, including traffic congestion, you also get a bit of local flavor as you pass through the various small towns along your route.

For instance, around Tulsa,OK you hear the locals using what my friend Rick tells me are called "big radios." These are extremely powerful CBs that overpower the signals from smaller units (like the one I carry), and allow the user to basically hijack the channel. They are the only thing you hear, as opposed to the cross-chatter you normally pick up when 10 people are trying to talk simultaneously. With my CB, if I talk, you hear a slight hissing in the background. Static. White noise. That's the case with most CBs. Not so with "big radios." They make the user sound like he's sitting in the car with you. Clear as a bell and no background noise at all. Some professional truckers, and believe me after watching them at work for the last week they are professionals, have "big radios" too, but they don't talk all that much. One of the great misconceptions about truckers is that they're a bunch of cowboy boot wearing, big belt-buckle with the belly hangin' over sportin', good-ol'-boys yakking away on their CBs.  They don't talk much at all, and when they do it's something worth saying.

In Tulsa, the locals have big radios that they use to communicate with friends around town. It's the same with St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin,MO., Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Tucumcari, Albuquerque and Flagstaff, but some of the locals in Tulsa have taken it to a new level. They torment the truckers as they drive through Tulsa. From about 10 miles northeast of Tulsa to about 10 miles southwest of Tulsa on US 44 you hear nothing but the endless loop of a recording made by a guy who tells truckers that Tulsa is a place where truckers know to "...keep your mouth shut! This is Tulsa, home of the Golden Crusaders CBC, and this town is where truckers know to keep your mouth shut! This is Tulsa, home of the Golden Crusaders CBC, and this town is where truckers know to keep your mouth shut!"

Someone needs to tell that CB club that Tulsa is the town that I now consider the shit-kicker capital of the United States. I'd have told them as I passed through, but nobody would have heard me because the big radio would have drowned me out.  What local chatter I did pick up centered mostly around pick-up trucks and how much they hate Barack Obama. Fuckin' shit-kickers.

As you proceed through Oklahoma City you pick up US 40 and head due west if you're planning on seeing the Grand Canyon. Some controversy exists as to the use of the word "the" before Grand Canyon. I always called it "the" Grand Canyon, but about 50% of the literature I've read in the last month simply call it Grand Canyon.

Anyway, where was I?...Oh yeah, turning onto US 40 at Okie City. There's a monument there called "The Oklahoma City Memorial" which I decided not to visit, and as I proceeded across the western half of Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas it occurred to me that the United States are not united states. That it's a myth is confirmed when you continue across New Mexico and Arizona. The southwest is filled with crackers who hate anyone who doesn't hate Barack Obama. I'm sure there are some nice people living in those states, but for the most part I felt like I'd entered another country.

My Illinois plates became a concern for me as I listened to the 50,000 watt radio stations pumping year-end reruns of the Best of Rush and the Hannity Show across the vast flat landscape. If it wasn't right-wing shit about Obama being the anti-Christ Muslim who shouldn't be in Hawai'i while the crotch-bomber is trying to crash a Delta/Northwest plane into Detroit, then it was some quack motherfucker talking about taking Jeeeezus as my personal savior.

I hit the scan button on the PT Cruiser (nice ride) and tried to find anything close to "normal" people talking about "normal" shit but it just wasn't there to be found. The southwest is filled with shit-kicking, Yankee-librul hatin' crackers who love god and guns. And did I mention that they fuckin' hate Barack Obama? Being from Illinois, I'm aware of the dislike for the president by some people, but it isn't until immersed in a sea of that absolute hatred did it fully dawn on me just how much some Americans hate other Americans.

30 years ago, I was visually stunned by the American southwest. The mesas are still there as are the endless rolling plains of scrub. But now the drive is marred by commercialism. The billboards are so frequent as to lose any power of advertisement. You can only see "Indian Kachina dolls hand made by REAL Indians 4 miles ahead at Indian Jewelry Depot" so many times before you stop being impressed that the Hopi can sell their heritage in such a fashion, and begin to wonder about the degradation. The open exploitation. Maybe in 150 more years  the cross-country driver will see "Soul Food made by REAL Negroes 4 miles ahead. Atlanta exit 114."

It's fuckin' depressing, and it goes on for most of the 700 or so miles from Okie City to Flagstaff. Such magnificent scenery, and they gotta put those fucking things up every 200 yards.

It is advisable to travel to the Grand Canyon between May and October. In those months the road to the North Rim is open and the South Rim can be approached with confidence from the small town of Williams, about 50 miles due south. During the winter it is recommended to check local weather as storms can blow in quickly and cause hazardous driving conditions as well as obscure the view of Grand Canyon itself.

I wasn't holding out any false hope that the storm that blew in on Tuesday would somehow pass and allow me the view that I'd driven 1749.3 miles to observe on Wednesday. I hadn't heard yet about the van sliding off the South Rim road Tuesday on the local news, but as I climbed US 64 heading north from Williams I knew I was in for some tricky driving and I was more than a little nervous. They don't salt roads in the southwest, they use sand or cinders. Ecological reasons probably, but it does make for some slippery slides. You gain about 1000 feet in altitude from Williams to the South Rim, and that 1000 feet makes a big difference. The small town of Tusayan is about half way between the two, and it's there that I started to notice a distinct reduction in visibility. By the time I reached the park entrance ($25 fee per vehicle, free admission if you come in on foot) I was driving in a cloud of snow and sleet and, and, and, ,,,,cloud.

Climbing to the South Rim on foot was a short walk from the parking lot by the Mather Camp Ground. As I stepped to the edge, directly above the entrance to Bright Angel Trail, and looked down, I was instantly reminded of the massive Georgia O'Keeffe painting called "Sky Above Clouds" that I've stared at for hours at the Art Institute.

Couldn't see a damn thing as I looked down into the abyss, almost a mile deep. The storm had settled in the Canyon, which they tell me is a rather unusual occurrence especially between the months of May-October. If one were on the Canyon floor on Wednesday 12/30/09, one would have seen a cloudy drop-ceiling blocking the sun and the sky and the canyon rims above.

A very strange experience. Standing on the rim, the wind was whistling in my ears, but if I cocked my head a certain way, I could hear the silence from the Canyon. Impossible to accurately describe with words, it's a silence that must be heard. I looked down into the clouds and could feel the immensity of what I couldn't see with my eyes. I could see the sheer drop-off under my boots, but that quickly became whiteout. No matter though, because I could feel the 4900 feet of emptiness directly beneath me. And as I looked across the top of the storm system hanging in the Canyon, I could sense the 7 miles of distance, "as the raven flies", to the North Rim. The fuckin' place exists on an absolutely massive scale.

I picked the wrong day to visit Grand Canyon National Park if I wanted pictures of vistas, but the perfect day if I wanted to feel the power of something I couldn't see. Down there in the clouds were the ghosts of Glen and Bessie Hyde, the echoes of John Wesley Powell, and the legacy of titans like Stephen Mather and Theodore Roosevelt.

Driving home was an adventure all its own. After spending the morning at the Canyon, I set out for Tucumcari and fought icy roads coming all the way down out of the mountains. New Mexico was no better. Thursday, New Year's Eve, was more of the same, with the panhandle of Texas reminding me of what desolation means. You go into a ditch in the middle of Bumfuck,TX in a snow storm, are in serious trouble. Life threatening shit. (Another reason to carry a CB.) The New Year arrived for me in Room 114 of the Motel 6 in Joplin, MO. Oh and, trips like this remind me that the last leg of a vacation is a real challenge when that leg is the full south to north length of my beloved Illinois. Man this is a fucking tall state.

It doesn't matter to me that my first trip to (the) Grand Canyon was missing what I went to see, because I'm going back there, probably many times before I die. Friends told me that I had to see the Grand Canyon to fully grasp the gargantuan scale, but I find that not to be the case. I went there, I didn't see it, but I understood just fine because I could feel it in my bones. I could hear it in the silence down in the clouds.

All in all, this trip is one I'll never forget. Not exactly what most people would consider an ideal vacation, but that's often the case with road trips I've enjoyed throughout my life. It's not really the destination, it's the journey that's the thing. If I'd wanted to max out my time at the Canyon, I'd have taken a plane to Vegas.

"It would be sensible not to go. But to do the sensible would be commonplace, and to be commonplace is unpardonable." ~Margaret Gehrke


Keifus said...

Wow, the view sure looks like a step off into the Big Empty. I guess you don't need to see the other side to get that far.

And politics is crazy.

Schmutz said...

The horror....the horror. Imagine being in a van that goes over the edge. How those people lived is beyond me. They found the one spot where it wasn't straight down. Amazing.

And yes, politics is crazy. All that Fraying prepared me for what I heard in the SW. Now I understand that JackDallas is not a unique character. The whole region is filled with rubes like him.

artandsoul said...

Oh oh oh. One for each video. I don't want to get too squealy, but I thoroughly enjoyed your travelogue.

Traveling at the ideal time is relative. I much prefer off-season anywhere. Most especially the Grand Canyon. My two visits were in November and December.

One can be smart about these things, and I"m glad you are.

Yes, southern (western and eastern) politics and radio are appalling.

Missed you.

This post is definitely worth a few re-reads.

Schmutz said...

Well thanks Cindy. I'm going to toss a few more videos up as soon as I can figure out why YouTube is "blocking content in some countries." Why in the hell would 8 Miles High and My Back Pages be blocked in Germany? Did the Byrds have some beef with the Helmut Kohl regime or something?

Thomas Paine said...

Glad I stopped by to read this -- been away far too long.

Just a couple of thoughts as regards attitudes of the locals in Arizona and New Mexico. I suspect that your evaluation based on CP chatter is far from a representative sample of the overall population. I have lived off and on over the past decade and have a quite different perspective. Of course, it also reflects local differences, and the commuities in which I lived in both states went fairly strongly for Obama in the last election, as they went for Kerry and Gore in the two elections prior.

My guess is that if you were to drive across Washington state and listen to the CB chatter, you would find much the same attitudes as you heard in AZ and NM.

Schmutz said...

Well, I'll grant you that it's not nearly as pronounced in NM and AZ as it is in TX and OK. As for the CB chatter, there's no way of knowing if I was listening to truckers or locals on their "big radios" but I got the distinct impression that they were base units. (Garage workshop cowboys)

But the most striking thing to me though was not the CB chatter. It was the 50,000 watt radio stations blasting right wing crapola out across the flats. They have no counterparts. It's all Hannity/Beck/Limbaugh/Williams/Cain/Thompson/Coulter etc etc etc. I posted something over at the Fray about the "scan button" experiment. AM radio starting at 560AM. Hit scan button. Rush/Religion/Rush/Hannity/Religion/Sooners football/Longhorn football/Rush reruns/Hannity Best of 2009/Rush rerun etc etc etc. It was amazing.

Schmutz said...

Oh and....yeah you have been away far too long.

What the fuck man?

Thomas Paine said...

Fighting some personal demons and working on a couple of literary projects that have not been progressing very well.

Anonymous said...

Your Grand Canyon experience recalls a trip to Kauai for my family and I early last year. We went to the Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and it was socked in with clouds, fog and drizzle. I had been there before and had seen the beautiful depths, so my mind's eye could still imagine it and, yes - I too could hear the depths and the vastness. Thought it was only because I'd seen it before, but you prove that maybe that wasn't true.

Don't get stuck in the snow back there in Chi, Schmutzie...

- - Robert

Schmutz said...

It's almost like large canyons have their own weather or something. Hard to believe it was 8 days ago that I was standing on the rim. Seems like yesterday. Powerful place Robert.

That's one big difference between Chicago and TX/NM....we're used to these storms. No big deal. Salt trucks have been out since midnight. Roads are OK, but it's probably going to be the big one of the year.

Schmutz said...

Hang in there TP. Demons fade away, and literary inspiration hits at the weirdest damned times.

switters said...

Breathtaking. Simply breathtaking.

Also, just a quick note to thank you for keeping the links to Alone In The Wilderness up. Much appreciated.

Schmutz said...

Thank you Switters. If you want to check out some more vids, you can click click on any of these and it'll take you to my YouTube page. Of course, that's assuming you don't mind my shaky-cam as I try to video and drive 80mph at the same time.

Dick Proennicke is God. Those links are staying, and I'm delighted that you find him inspiring too. What a fuckin' guy he must have been to know.

artandsoul said...

I just got the notification from YouTube about your videos. I can see where my Saturday is leading. More anon.

Schmutz said...

Hi Cindy. I just clicked on a few of the others and see that YouTube has kindly attached advertisements for iTunes, including titles for the songs I was listening to in the car while shooting the vids. Sheesh.

artandsoul said...

Wow! I'm going through the videos, and that was my one desire ... "what the heck is the name of that song?"